I have been mentioning to people lately that many of the Associated Press’s news stories are written by robots. Since at least 2006 the automated workforce has been converting data heavy events like political races and business mergers into “human-readable” narratives. One sports website, StatSheet (shutdown in 2011), was entirely made up of automated stories.
Yesterday, I raised the question: what kind of work do humans do that machines could never replicate? Tonight, let’s get more specific. What kind of writing could never be automated? What kind of writing is uniquely human?
Because the days of the common beat reporter, the “just the facts” guy, appear to be numbered. What this reveals to me is that human writing has to be more than reported facts. Machines can handle way more data than humans can, and they can mimic our writing style to give at least a little context for that data.
Not too long ago “objective journalism” seemed like a great achievement. It promised a news story that lacked the human passions that could skew the actual events. In the new context of a fully automated staff of robot journalists, those “human passions” seem like the great achievement.
Here’s a couple helpful thoughts for those of us who create with words:
- Empathy is an indispensable skill to learn for anyone who aspires to write stories. The ability to characterize on the page what another person is feeling is something a computer will always find difficult to do well. More important then simply getting the facts is understanding and demonstrating the impact of those facts on human experience.
- Subjectivity is an asset, and not a liability, in journalism. Human reporters can take big risks, experiment, improvise a narrative in a way a machine cannot. And that makes them more exciting than the robot journalist who writes my fantasy football league updates.
What else can human writers do with language that machines cannot? Comment below. I would love to talk about this with you!
I’m also developing some great free resources for my email list. (Let me know if it doesn’t pop up. I’m still working out the bugs).